Britain’s Labour Party ||| Backwards, comrades!

EconomistSep 19th 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is leading Britain’s left into a political timewarp. Some old ideological battles must be re-foughtScreen Shot 2015-09-17 at 4.54.46 PM

BEFORE he had finished belting out his first celebratory rendition of “The Red Flag”, a hymn to class struggle, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s colleagues in Labour’s shadow cabinet had already handed in their resignations. A 66-year-old socialist, Mr Corbyn has spent 32 years as one of the hardest of hardline left-wingers in the House of Commons and a serial rebel on the Labour backbenches. On September 12th he flattened three moderate rivals (see article) to become leader of Britain’s main opposition party. Labour MPs are stunned—and perhaps none more so than Mr Corbyn himself.

Two views are emerging of Labour’s new leader. The more sympathetic is that, whatever you think of his ideology, Mr Corbyn will at least enrich Britain by injecting fresh ideas into a stale debate. Voters who previously felt uninspired by the say-anything, spin-everything candidates who dominate modern politics have been energised by Mr Corbyn’s willingness to speak his mind and condemn the sterile compromises of the centre left. The other is that Mr Corbyn does not matter because he is unelectable and he cannot last. His significance will be to usher in a second successive Conservative government in the election of 2020—and perhaps a third in 2025.

Both these views are complacent and wrong. Mr Corbyn’s election is bad for the Labour Party and bad for Britain, too.

Cowards flinch and traitors sneer  Start with the ideas. In recent decades the left has had the better of the social arguments—on gay rights, say, or the role of women and the status of the church—but the right has won most of the economic ones. Just as the Tory party has become more socially liberal, so, under Neil Kinnock and then Tony Blair, Labour dropped its old commitment to public ownership and accepted that markets had a role in providing public services. Mr Blair’s government put monetary policy in the hands of an independent Bank of England and embraced the free movement of people and goods within Europe.

The argument today has moved on—to the growing inequality that is a side-effect of new technology and globalisation; to the nature of employment, pensions and benefits in an Uberising labour market of self-employed workers (see article); and to the need for efficient government and welfare systems. Fresh thinking on all this would be welcome—indeed it should be natural territory for the progressive left. But Mr Corbyn is stuck in the past. His “new politics” has nothing to offer but the exhausted, hollow formulas which his predecessors abandoned for the very good reason that they failed.

Only in the timewarp of Mr Corbyn’s hard-left fraternity could a programme of renationalisation and enhanced trade-union activism be the solution to inequality. If just spending more money were the secret of world-class public services, Britain, which cut almost 1m public-sector jobs in the previous parliament, would have been a cauldron of discontent. In fact voters’ satisfaction with public services rose. If you could create macroeconomic stability by bringing the Bank of England back under the government’s thumb, then Britain would not have spent the post-war decades lurching from politically engineered booms to post-election busts.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 5.00.07 PMTime and again, Mr Corbyn spots a genuine problem only to respond with a flawed policy. He is right that Britain sorely lacks housing. But rent controls would only exacerbate the shortage. The previous Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government should indeed have been less austere. It could have boosted demand by spending more on infrastructure. But Mr Corbyn’s notion of “people’s QE”—getting the Bank of England to print money to pay for projects—threatens to become an incontinent fiscal stimulus by the backdoor (rather than serve as an unorthodox form of monetary policy when interest rates are at zero). There is no denying that young people have been harmed by Tory policies that favour the old. But scrapping university-tuition fees would be regressive and counterproductive. For proof, consider that in England more poor students go to university than when higher education was free, whereas in Scotland, whose devolved government has abolished tuition fees, universities are facing a funding crisis and attract no more poor students than they did.

To see where Mr Corbyn’s heart lies, you have only to look at the company he has kept. He admires the late Hugo Chávez for his legacy in Venezuela. No matter that chavismohas wrecked the economy and hollowed out democracy. He indulges Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy in Russia and blames NATO for provoking its invasion of Ukraine. He entertains Hamas, which has repeatedly used violence against Israel and admires Syriza, the radical left party that has governed Greece with almost unmatched incompetence. Yet he is stridently anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-NATO and quietly anti-European Union (apparently, it’s a free-market conspiracy—see article). He even scolded China’s Communist Party for its free-market excesses.

To argue that Mr Corbyn’s ideas will improve the quality of political discourse in Britain just because they are different is about as wise as Mr Corbyn’s refusal this week to sing the national anthem at a service to commemorate the Battle of Britain. Policies this flawed will crowd out debate, not enrich it.

The Corbyn of history  Perhaps that doesn’t matter. Mr Corbyn had no expectation of winning the leadership, and for a man who has never had to compromise, the drudgery of party management, media appearances and relentless scrutiny must be a hardship. Even if he is not pushed, he may not choose to stay for long.

Yet the leader of the opposition is one Tory meltdown away from power. Even if Mr Corbyn fails ever to become prime minister, as is likely, he will still leave his mark on the Labour Party. The populism and discontent that brought him the leadership will not just subside. The loathing of Westminster that he represents and the fantasies that he spins will make the task for the next centrist Labour leader all the harder. There is nothing to celebrate about Mr Corbyn’s elevation. For Britain, it is a grave misfortune.